The History of Blackball at Wedge

The following article is an historical account of the Blackball Flag and its significance to the bodysurfing culture at Wedge. The referenced Ordinance and Resolutions are attached to the bottom of the article for those who seek more information. Feel free to contact to provide more information or personal accounts referenced throughout the article.

The modern form of bodysurfing has been around since the early years of the 20th century. In those days, bodysurfing was the most popular water sport. Many of the top bodysurfers were also top athletes of their time. Olympians like Wally O’Connor raved about the “thrills, pleasure and exercise of body surfing.” It attracted many well-known football players of the mid-century too. With all these highly competitive people pushing each other to bodysurf bigger and better waves along the southern California coast, it is no surprise many found a sticking point at the end of the Balboa Peninsula.

Bodysurfers are reported to have found Wedge sometime near the 1930’s. They called it “The Hook.” These early pioneers hurled themselves over the falls with rudimentary tools and no social media. Wedge stayed that way for many years. By the 1960’s, there was a dedicated contingent of bodysurfers and as the number of beach goers throughout Newport continued to grow the City Council was forced to shape new policies.

In April of 1966 the Newport City Council issued Ordinance 1162. They designated surfing areas to protect surf bathers from “hazardous surfing.” The council decided the best way to communicate these established areas was through the use of signal flags. “The authority to prohibit surfing set forth in subsection (b) may be exercised by displaying signal flags consisting of a solid black circle on a yellow background. When such flags are displayed on the beach they shall signify that surfing is prohibited.” Newport City Council had officially adopted the Blackball Flag as a tool to protect the public. They had no idea how iconic this symbol would become.

W TowerWedge was not included in the early Blackball adoption. It wasn’t until 1978 that Wedge would be added to the protected beaches 12-4 p.m. during the summer months. The dedicated local crew of bodysurfers continued to grow and evolve through these ancestral generations. Alternative craft riders like kneeboarders were also present. Tom Morey’s 1971 invention, the bodyboard, sent another flood of riders into the impressive wedging shore break. According to the 1978 resolution these riders were allowed to ride waves even when the Blackball Flag was flying because Blackball only prohibited stand-up surfing.

The Wedge landscape went through another transformation in 1985. According to hazy memories a bodysurfer was run over by a kneeboarder. The vocal bodysurfer urged the council to strengthen the blackball. The council agreed and in November of that same year Section 6 was added. Section 6 stated “All flotation devices such as boogie boards, surf mats, etc. are prohibited at the area commonly known as The “Wedge” when the Blackblall Flag is displayed.” This was the first direct reference to Wedge in official Newport Code. Wedge bodysurfers now had exclusive rights to the wave in the afternoon hours.

11086694_973397486011317_2003887813_nWhile the bodysurfers had fought to gain this time to safely practice their art, they were only scrapping for the wave during the worst hours of the day. In southern California surfers are lucky to have favorable winds as late as 10 a.m. much less 12 p.m. So, in 1993 the dedicated bodysurfers set up for another run at City Council. This time, the boys put on their Sunday’s best to ask for a chance to preserve bodysurfing’s roots and future at Wedge. This group of bodysurfers called themselves the Wedge Preservation Society and they are still around to this day.

Both sides of the issue brought their case before the Newport City Council. On the 10th of May 1993 Resolution NO. 93-33 was passed and the Blackball as we now know it was born. Three key changes were enacted. The Wedge area was clearly defined as the West Jetty to tower “P”. The blackballed hours were extended to include the hours between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. And the last major change was to extend the blackball period from May 1st through the end of October encompassing the bulk of southern California’s south swell window. The bodysurfing community, which first pioneered Wedge, now had means to safely carry on their craft for the years to come.

Fast-forward to 2014, under the guise of “fairness,” a group of photographers and board riders attempted to rally support against the current Blackball regulations at Wedge. Thanks to W.P.S. and the watchful eye of the other passionate bodysurfers, letters poured in from around the world to the Newport City Council expressing the importance in maintaining Wedge’s bodysurfing heritage. They decided to create a working group to gather data and put forward proposals the following year. On April 7, 2015 the Blackball Working Group recommended putting forward a resolution to both reduce the number of months Wedge Blackball should be enforced and to reduce the physical area defined as Wedge. They provided little relevant data to support the changes and in the end the resolution was not adopted. Modern Blackball policy may seem safe, but it is very clear that we cannot rest on our laurels. There are many parties of surf enthusiasts working hard to get a bigger share of Wedge waves. Whether their motives be to make money from selling photographs to the surf industry or simple greediness in hopes to surf Wedge beyond the prime morning/evening hours which they already control, we need to remain vigilant. Maintaining vocal support for the preservation of bodysurfing’s rightful place in the Wedge lineup is up to the cultural descendents of those first adventurous riders.


1966 Ordinance 1162

1978 Resolution 9451

1985 Resolution 85-94

1993 Resolution 93-33

The Joy of Bodysurfing Big Waves

IMG_1604It starts with a buoy, bouncing and sending waves of information to shore. When it lands on my computer screen my body feels it. It’s just an echo. The memory of hundreds of rides shaking my nerves awake. I experience the same excitement that I feel when the horizon goes dark. This feeling infects each moment after. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic I’m just a little more patient because I know what’s coming. As the swell steams closer to the coast the community starts to buzz.

The day before a swell is filled with anticipation. Pouring over graphs and charts, we try to project the character of the coming waves. Will it have long lulls? Is it going to be combo’d and peaky? How’s the wind looking? Kyle’s deep in the rabbit hole. He’s sending me more information than I can process. I’m chugging water. No cramps, no problem. Got swell? No problem. I know within an Earth’s turn I’m going to be gasping for air and to those of us afflicted with this counter-evolutionary curse there is no more comforting thought.

The night creeps by. Usually I wake up an hour before the alarm, decide to get up instead of fighting to sleep. Why sleep when the stuff of dreams is dawning in the present? The excitement, wrapped in fear, re-packaged as anxiety and harnessed as fuel sits like a cinder block in my stomach. Downing bananas. Arriving at a spot when the waves are big drops a whole bag of unique subtleties.


First comes the sound waves. Sometimes before you can even see the spot you can hear the boom. The explosive impact, hundreds of pounds, water colliding with itself. As Mickey Smith says, waves with weight. You don’t even have to say anything to your buddies, they know. The moment has arrived. We’re never so lucky as we are in that brief present, fins in hand, ankle deep in salt water, staring into the face of an Ocean very nearly out of control. Sentient beings lingering at the edge of adventure and mayhem, even the ground trembles.

In a blink we’re in it, neck deep in the sloshing, spinning soup. From this angle, outside could be a mile away, you have no idea what lies beyond the foamy insider which on most days could pass for the wave of the day. The arms are feeling it. How long have I been swimming? Five minutes? Twenty minutes? Every once in a while a surfer will paddle up beside me and a set rolls through, the board is out of sight. Before even riding a single wave there are strobe-light moments to be had, getting lost in a shifty horizon. My eyes are scanning the shape of the lump, running the algorithms of physics I’ve never bothered to learn. Where will this damn thing break? Can I make it if I run for it? Do I need to stay put and let some of the energy fizzle? This decision is made on a near-subconscious level and when the call is wrong a price is paid.  It makes that first moment out the back twice as sweet.

Time to hunt. Never a bad day out there, but the speed, hot nasty speed, there is no substitute. The set swings my way and I’m clinging to the back of the freight train. On waves of size, the bulk of our bodies hydroplane. We break free of Poseidon’s grip, if only for a little while. And when the ride comes to an end, we feel his mighty wrath. He tests our flexibility first. Can your heels touch your head? Then its the vestibular system. There’s no up or down it’s all wash. Lastly its the lungs to suffer and relief is only found through still thought, the zen of almost drowning. When we burst through the surface air is cotton candy. Each sweet inhale sends endorphins to my throbbing cells. The most pure of the joys is the one written into the fabric of our bodies, nectar of the gods and it doesn’t cost a cent.


Our Hurricane Marie Experience

Night before
Night before

6:30pm The Night Before: EJ
Newport is buzzing. There are humans everywhere, on bike and foot and stopped in cars. Parents usher their children through the gates of the great coliseum. I walk the sidewalk and feel the ground tremble. After years of anticipation, the booming sound of my own daydream synces with my reality.

10:30pm The Night Before: EJ
Skye, Kyle and myself sip on beers sitting in the sticky Newport sand. I stare at breakers through the still darkness. Visions strobing through my mind, two-story waves swallowing bodysurfers, spitting them onto the rocky jetty. I have to remember. We’d trained our legs and lungs for this and we are ready. Sleep would not come easy. I shift from side to side in my sleeping bag on the floor. Thankful to have a roof and a bathroom for the morning (always an issue when travelling to Wedge), I focus on breathing and collecting my energy to let my body rest for the morning.

4:00am: KS
The swell rumbled me awake as I urban camped on 50th St. I groggily drive to the end of the Peninsula, scoring the best parking spot possible. A few dozen people pace the beach waiting for the show while a couple of jittery bodyboarders chat excitedly.

photo (1)

4:30am: KS
Sitting on the jetty rocks, I see the outline of large peaks bouncing off the jetty. The whole beach shakes. Then I’m blinded by headlights approaching from the street. I think, “That’s weird, the street ends up there.” The headlights get closer, “What the hell are they doing?” Rumbling over rocks, down the beach, the KTLA news van comes to an abrupt stop 5 ft. from where I’m sitting. The driver quickly puts it in reverse…and digs himself deeper into the sand…stuck.

5:00am: KS
Boards and hoards begin to arrive. More news trucks fill the end of the street. The beach quakes from what must be truly massive, but unseen waves.

5:15am: EJ
The coastline is still stifled in shadow, but the behind a few lines of obvious urban-campers, riders were beginning to park. Most of the early-risers were bouncing with excitement, but some looked downright intimidated. The swell had done its part and now it was up those of us who had waited to step into the water. I had plenty of distractions; the news truck stuck in the sand, the drone operators, the wide-eyed onlookers and the Purps beverage slingers. Stay focused. Watch the waves, study the waves, know the waves. The next few hours were a blink.

5:30am: KS
IMG_0172Civil twilight brings the first sign of light. Suddenly there are hundreds of people taking their spectator positions. Finally, the full scale of the Hurricane Marie swell is revealed and it is not a disappointment.

5:50am: KS
The first wave of the day is successfully ridden by a surfer. The flood gates open: bodyboarders and surfers rush the lineup.

IMG_04546:00am: KS
The lineup is already chaotic: drop-ins, ditched and broken boards. Glory rides and horrific wipeouts abound.

6:30am: KS
Pipeline charger, Jamie O’Brien, shows up with his normal shortboard and a soft-top surfboard. He attempts to paddle out on them simultaneously, but as he enters the water at Cylinders, a huge set stacks up. As the first wave approaches, he stands on the soft-top and tries to heave his shortboard over the top while he dives into the shallow water.  His boards wash back to the beach and he swims in after them…smiling.

7:00am: KS
O’Brien pulls off his board transfer stunt by paddling into the peak on the soft-top while holding his shortboard. Half way down the face, he puts the shortboard on the wave and jumps onto it. He finishes the ride by pulling into a mean, foamy barrel. The ever-increasing crowd cheers.

Bodysurfer Robin Mohr
Bodysurfer Robin Mohr

7:30am: KS
Eric Thulander catches the first bodysurf wave of the day, a solid right on the inside. While South African, Robin Mohr battles it out on the peak. Catching a couple of bombs dangerously surrounded by boards from the drop. I made the decision the week before that I was not swimming out. I was an excited spectator. But my boy EJ had been waiting for this. He’s been spending some time up here and he wanted it. He was anxious but ready.

9:40am (20mins until Black Ball): EJ
Much of the Crew is in the rocks and getting in their wetsuits. Teddy is literally bouncing. He’s half singing and half screaming, fake-boxing with Starky’s chest. I go the other direction. I hardly want to speak. My eyes avoid contact. Sometimes I’ll meet eyes with another guy in the same “zone.” We nod and reabsorb into our personal ether. Collect energy. We’ve all been looking at these freight train waves for hours, but Kyle and Skye find me. Kyle tells me that I don’t have to go out, but by his smirk I know he’s aware I decided to swim out months ago. My body suddenly felt the immensity of the situation. I’m racing on my bike across the peninsula, bound to find myself contemplating each of my exhilarating adventures in the squalor of public restrooms.

IMG_054910:00am: KS
Cheers to the Crew. They had to swim out. Regardless of their apprehensions and nerves. They had fought so hard for this. It was their time. Blackball. Newport Beach City Resolution 95-116. At 9:50, they gathered on the berm. 9:55 a massive set rumbled down the Jetty. At 10:01, after the set cleared, Chuck Olson led the charge. The Boys straight charged. There was only about 15 of them max at any given time. But very few waves went unridden. There was a group of guys sitting on the inside catching well-overhead runners all the away across to the sand. A group sat in the middle, riding perfect peaks into cavernous barrels. And a few guys lurked out the back, furiously kicking into, and successfully riding the biggest 20fters. It was a spectacle. A celebration of the Blackball.  A tribute to the history and culture of bodysurfing.


10:25am: EJ

Teddy Photo: Hank Haldeman
Teddy           Photo: Hank Haldeman

From the berm, I’ve never seen the look like this, but at this point I need to get in the water. The gallery is 7-8 people deep. I’m wading through bodies, each with eyes glued to the horizon. Eager to get in, but I have to watch the jetty. Whitewater on the jetty means sit your ass back down. All clear? Go. My nerves are twisted and tied, but as soon as my wetsuit fills with the Pacific energy nervousness is a distant memory. Swim. Letting the wash do the work I’m in the lineup unscathed and the “lineup” is scattered. There are heads bobbing outside, no doubt Kalima, Larson, JT and Teddy. There are a handful of guys doing laps on the “inside,” catching perfect 10-12ft cornerbowls to the sand. Their artful rides are jaw dropping. I had decided to sit on the inside of the peak towards Brutals. The truly perfect hurricane peaks were inconsistent at best, but I saw a couple of smaller “sets” swinging wide to the north and that’s where I’d hunt.

IMG_434611:30am: KS
I’m trying to find a spot to spectate and photograph. The thick crowd is serious about holding their spots. Ooohs, ahhs and gasps resound with every wave ridden. A giant set breaks out the back and a bodysurfer charges down the face, much to the delight of the crowd. Unknowingly, the crowd continues to spectate the action in the water as the first wave of the set rushes unimpeded up the beach. Slamming into and over the tall berm. Everyone nearby is soaked. Including the guy holding the $3,000 in sandy, dripping wet camera gear. Lot’s of action all around!

 11:45am: EJ
I’ve caught a few to the inside. Feeling comfortable. Everyone left in the water is grinning ear to ear. Look at that crowd. I just noticed thousands of people staring back at me from the sand. Surreal. There would be chargers among them. They may even remember back to that day in 2014 when they watched a handful of bodysurfers swim the thin line between chaos and control. Now they’re whistling. Oh shit, they’re whistling at the jetty. I whip around to see Godzilla rising out the back. Scurry and scrape. Not going to make it. I’m arcing my neck straight up in a way that I haven’t since childhood. Experiencing the elephant as the mouse and I’m swimming deep. Long strokes, deep. Each breath has been practiced and the collision of water is epic. Popping out of the churning Ocean and then I’m deep again. On the third I catch a blur of a body air dropping into the pocket of the beast. He stuck it, whoever it was. Bodies rolling in the high seas.

1:30pm: EJ
After a succession of waves, each bigger and better, I am saying my goodbyes. I’m solemnly aware of the specialness in this rotation of the Earth. 14 years since the last, who knows how long til the next. A slow sniff of the moment and I float on my back to look up. My private reflection ended and I start tracking what looks to be a swinging inside peak. It’s big. Thomas, who has shared a number of waves with guys already calls out, “you got it? Looks like a makeable closeout.” Makeable closeout.

 “I’m here.”

 It pitches. I’m locked. I’m the blur. In the cave. Out the caaavvve… back in. It blurs, I’m pitched, then expanded in all directions. The big bang and then the sand. Love.